Accurate timing of migration prolongs life expectancy in pike

This blog post is a press release from the authors of the Journal of Animal Ecology paper “Causes and consequences of repeatability, flexibility and individual fine-tuning of migratory timing in pike” by Petter Tibblin published today. Press release issued by Linnaeus University

Animal migration is a spectacular phenomenon that has fascinated humans for a long time. It is widely assumed that appropriate timing of migratory events is crucial for survival, but the causes and consequences of individual variation in timing are poorly understood. New research based on migrating pike in the Baltic Sea and published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Animal Ecology reveals how behaviours such as punctuality, flexibility and fine-tuning influence life expectancy in fish. Continue reading

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From social network analysis to speciation in the Neotropics: exciting research by early career ornithologists.

Mentoring in action: the networking event that occurred after the lightning talks by early career ornithologists that I described in my earlier post.

Mentoring in action: the networking event that occurred after the lightning talks by early career ornithologists that I described in my earlier post.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the joint American Ornithologists Union (AOU) and Cooper Ornithological Society (COS) conference this year emphasized a renewed focus on early career professionals.  Such a practice is key in supporting early careers folks in a time when the job market is tight and funding rates are very low.  Many of us may receive quality one-on-one mentoring at our home institutions, but this type of feedback in a conference setting from individuals that may be on search committees or grant review panels is also invaluable. AOU is not the only organization to recognize this need. The Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) also provides opportunities for one-on-one mentoring for early career professionals, and I’m sure readers can name other scientific organizations and conferences that do the same.  In all, this is an important movement among organizations to foster the next generation in tangible ways.  Keeping in the spirit of this movement, I’d like to highlight papers given by early career individuals from the AOU-COS 2015 conference.

Jared Wolfe, trained in Phil Stouffer’s lab at Louisiana State University and now with the USDA forest service, gave one of the Cooper Young Professional presentations.  Using one of the more elegant sets of slides I’ve seen, he presented research by himself and colleagues in the Stouffer lab on the impact of second growth forest on the behavior, survival and biogeography of birds in the Amazon.  This research was based in the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), started in 1979 by Thomas Lovejoy near Manaus, Brazil. The BDFFP consists of a series of differently sized old growth fragments that are being reconnected by second growth forest of different ages. Comparing this incredible study site to a series of islands created by flooding in a nearby area around the same time, Wolfe and colleagues were able to demonstrate that, at least for birds, forest fragments do not behave like islands in terms of species composition or survival. They also asked whether second growth is ‘bad’ or ‘good’ habitat.  By comparing fragments embedded within variably aged second growth (from <5 years to >10 years), they demonstrated that edge birds do well with young second growth whereas insectivorous understory birds do not. As the second growth matures, they found that young insectivorous understory birds begin to recolonize regenerating forest and it was hypothesized during Q&A that the most sensitive bird species may recover after 60 years of regeneration. Perhaps the most interesting finding to me was that networks of mixed- species flocks were quite unstable in second growth itself, but began to exhibit a more complete network in fragments connected by second growth.  It is worth noting that these results are the work of thousands of hours of netting, surveying and following birds with radio telemetry in difficult field conditions year round.  Of great interest to Neotropical ornithologists who do not have a trusty Pyle guide to turn to, Wolfe and Erik Johnson have worked out aging techniques based on molt cycles and plumage patterns for a number of tropical species, which will open up new avenues of research on these birds.  Very exciting! Expect that work out soon through the Studies of Avian Biology.  Finally, I should note that Wolfe and two colleagues, Luke Powell and Jacob Cooper are working to address the same questions in Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa, as well as conserve rapidly disappearing species in that region.  Be sure to check out their endeavors ( and future publications!

Maya Faccio, a Ph.D. student in the Weir Lab at the University of Toronto, gave a great talk on the genomics of speciation in the Hypocnemoides Amazonian complex. The ranges of many Amazonian birds are defined by river barriers and generally are thought to drive speciation in allopatry.  Faccio and colleagues examined the black chinned antbird (H. melanopogon) and band-tailed antbird (H. maculicauda) that come into geographic contact along the eastern edge of their range.  They used a genome-wide SNP dataset and fastsimcoal2 to test whether these sibling species evolved via speciation in allopatry with secondary contact or whether parapatric speciation is in play.  A model of parapatric speciation was rejected, and the best model was one of an initial allopatric phase followed by secondary parapatry. I was taken by this talk because the genomics of speciation is still a relatively recent field, and focused primarily on model taxa or non-model taxa in temperate regions. I was impressed to see a well-executed genomics approach to a speciation question in a tropical bird species by a graduate student.  Keep an eye out for this student’s work!

Elizabeth Hobson, trained in Tim Wright’s lab at NMSU and now a postdoc at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, was one of the early career professionals who took part in the lightning slide talks this year at AOU. Dr. Hobson integrates behavioral assays and cutting edge network analysis to address questions about the emergence of group-level social structures. Using novel captive groups of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), she asked questions about whether rank affects how individuals decide to target aggression and potential cognitive mechanisms involved in inferring own and others’ ranks.  Rank does affect target choice, and after a week of settling into new groups, individuals shift in behavior to preferentially target aggression against those nearby in rank. Her modeling work revealed that individuals could use subsets of the aggression network to infer third-party relationships.  This ability for social memory and inference allows individuals to avoid costly social interactions and instead target those most likely to threaten their own position in rank. Plus, the network models make for great visualizations of quantitative (behavioral) information!

There were many more excellent talks and posters given by early career ornithologists, and I congratulate the organizers, Eli Bridge and Jeff Kelly, for putting together an engaging, intimate AOU-COS meeting this year.  Be on the look out for next year’s exciting, largest-ever North American Ornithological Conference, NAOC 2016.

Elizabeth Derryberry
Associate Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology

Former and current students and curators at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. Names: Left-right: Kevin Burns (Curator, San Diego State University Museum of Diversity), Liz Derryberry (faculty, Tulane University), Andy Kratter (Collection Manager, University of Florida Museum), Phil Stouffer (faculty, LSU), Matt Carling (Curator, University of Wyoming), Sinéad Borchert (Stouffer lab, LSU), Robb Brumfield (Director, LSU Museum of Natural Science), Clare Brown (Sheldon lab, LSUMNS), Ryan Burner (Brumfield lab), Angelica Hernandez Palma (Stouffer lab, LSU), Mark Robbins (Collections Manager, Kansas University), Terry Chesser (Curator, Smithsonian), Fred Sheldon (Curator, LSU MNS), Oscar Johnson (Brumfield lab), Jared Wolfe (USDA Forest Service).

Former and current students and curators at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. Names:
Left-right: Kevin Burns (Curator, San Diego State University Museum of Diversity), Liz Derryberry (faculty, Tulane University), Andy Kratter (Collection Manager, University of Florida Museum), Phil Stouffer (faculty, LSU), Matt Carling (Curator, University of Wyoming), Sinéad Borchert (Stouffer lab, LSU), Robb Brumfield (Director, LSU Museum of Natural Science), Clare Brown (Sheldon lab, LSUMNS), Ryan Burner (Brumfield lab), Angelica Hernandez Palma (Stouffer lab, LSU), Mark Robbins (Collections Manager, Kansas University), Terry Chesser (Curator, Smithsonian), Fred Sheldon (Curator, LSU MNS), Oscar Johnson (Brumfield lab), Jared Wolfe (USDA Forest Service).

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East Africa’s Elephant Architects

I can see elephants in my backyard—at least fifteen of them, youngsters and grownups. They are a few hundred meters off, but distinctive amongst the thorn trees, and my eyes drift to them every time I look up from the computer screen.

Elephants as seen through the window as I sat down to write this post at Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, July 5th 2015

Elephants as seen through the window as I sat down to write this post at Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, July 5th 2015

In the 12 years that I’ve been working here at the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya’s Laikipia Highlands, elephants have grown both more abundant and more tranquil, less prone to howl at passing cars. This shift has both deep and shallow historical roots: Laikipia’s colonial legacy of large landholdings, a decentralized local conservation movement, the diminishing profitability of livestock, the rise of ecotourism, urbanization, globalization. These factors, independently and synergistically, have helped Laikipians tolerate elephants, and tolerance is reciprocated. Sitting at this little desk in this tiny sliver of equatorial Africa, I find it easy not to stew about the future of elephants. I mean, look at them out there.

Elephants in Laikipia’s clay-soil, with Mt. Kenya and Acacia drepanolobium trees in the background

Elephants in Laikipia’s clay-soil, with Mt. Kenya and Acacia drepanolobium trees in the background

In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where I spent the previous month, things are different. Gorongosa’s elephants are rebounding after having nearly been exterminated during two decades of war (another colonial legacy). The story of exactly what happened to the elephants during those years remains to be told, but the anecdotes are depressingly credible: ivory swapped for guns used to shoot more elephants to buy more guns. Since 2004, a sweeping restoration effort has bought the time and space for elephant numbers to quintuple, but erasing the biological and cultural legacies of the slaughter will take centuries. Gorongosa’s elephants, many of them tuskless, are anxious on the best of days; on the worst of days, they try to kill you.

A herd of elephants, including tuskless females, in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park

A herd of elephants, including tuskless females, in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park

Just as you can read human history in elephant behavior, you can read elephant history in the landscape. Anyone who has ever seen an elephant feeding can appreciate their ability to maintain open savannas (or, more pejoratively, to destroy woodland) by felling large trees. Accordingly, the human-elephant détente in Laikipia has left footprints. When my colleague Truman Young started working at Mpala in the early 1990s, the tree Acacia hockii was locally common. Now, it is almost gone; a team of botanists recently found one individual growing in an inaccessible rock-slope refuge—a great find. Because each tree species is the hub of many ecological interactions, elephants’ feeding habits can create shockwaves throughout entire communities. The hook-thorned Acacia mellifera, whose cage-like architecture provides daytime sleep-sites for nocturnal bushbabies, seems to be declining on Mpala’s clay-rich soils as elephant densities increase. As goes mellifera, so should go bushbabies.

In Gorongosa, conversely, the prolonged absence of elephants and other large herbivores has triggered substantial expansion of woody vegetation. Work by my student Josh Daskin has shown that tree cover has more than doubled in Gorongosa’s Rift Valley habitats over the past 35 years. This too has undoubtedly had cascading impacts on Gorongosa’s other fauna.

This ability of elephants to transform landscapes has motivated a large body of research, including our study in Journal of Animal Ecology. We showed that fire—another potent form of disturbance in savannas—amplifies elephant ecosystem engineering in Mpala’s clay-soil habitats. The vast majority of trees in these soils are whistling-thorns (Acacia drepanolobium), which elephants rarely touch. Why? Because A. drepanolobium is well-defended via its co-evolved relationship with ants that protect the trees from herbivores (elephants dislike getting ants up their noses). The experiment involved torching a series 900-m2 patches, inside and outside of plots from which elephants and giraffes are excluded using two-meter-high electrified wires.

Electrified wires exclude elephants from experimental plots

Electrified wires exclude elephants from experimental plots

These controlled burns killed many of the ant colonies, depriving trees of their symbiotic guardians. In the elephant-free zones, the antless trees stayed upright. But outside the fenced areas, elephants zeroed in on the newly vulnerable trees and wreaked havoc.

Of course, ‘havoc’ depends on your point of view. For arboreal dwarf day geckos (Lygodactylus keniensis), which are the most numerous vertebrate animals in this habitat, the patches of toppled trees were prime real estate. Browsing elephants snap stems and large branches, creating small cracks and crevices that geckos use as refuges and nest sites. In our experiment, gecko abundance quickly doubled in plots affected by both elephants and fire—a synergistic effect, meaning that the combined impact of the two disturbances together was greater than the sum of each independently.

An elephant feeds on Acacia mellifera at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya

An elephant feeds on Acacia mellifera at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya

But the gecko housing bubble was short-lived. After 12 months, severely damaged trees in the unfenced plots began to collapse, reducing gecko densities from the astronomical levels (up to 1,100 per hectare!) attained in the first year of the experiment. In the fenced burned plots, meanwhile, scorched trees were slowly decaying, creating novel lizard-friendly fissures. After 16 months, gecko abundance was equally high in all burned plots, regardless of elephants. Thus, fire by itself had the effect of doubling gecko abundance; it’s just that the effect emerged more rapidly with an assist from the elephants. In contrast, elephant effects materialized only in burned plots and then melted away.

The importance of fire-elephant interactions in African savannas is widely appreciated, but our study was unusual in two respects. First, due to the difficult-to-tame nature of both elephants and fire, most prior studies have relied heavily on observational data. By manipulating both fire and elephants in a controlled and replicated experiment, we were able to quantify their interactive effects in the absence of confounding environmental variability. Second, although small animals constitute the bulk of biodiversity, prior studies of the elephant-fire nexus have focused almost exclusively on vegetation. Intuition suggests that these ‘destructive’ forces should negatively affect arboreal animals (and in some cases they surely do), yet our study showed that their effects can be positive—and even more positive in combination, at least temporarily—by rearranging tree architecture.

As illustrated by the divergent scenarios unfolding in Laikipia and Gorongosa, elephant populations are acutely sensitive to the human dramas in which they are embedded. Their profound ecological impacts, like those of fire, stir strong emotions and spark debates that divide management teams. What is the right number of elephants, and how often should a savanna burn? Science cannot adjudicate those subjective questions, but it can help us anticipate the likely consequences of their answers. Observational, experimental, and modeling studies each independently illuminate important facets of this problem; together, their effects are synergistic.

Rob Pringle
Princeton University
Twitter: @rob_pringle

For more of Rob’s photos please see the slideshow

All photographs by Robert M. Pringle

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American Ornithologists Union focuses on fledging early career professionals

It is a hot Friday morning, the second to last day of an intimate AOU-COS meeting on the University of Oklahoma campus, and a big day for my lab. A number of my students are giving their first conference talks and have the jitters. I’ve listened to renditions between sessions and late into the night. I remember the not too distant past when I stood nervous in my PI’s room, making yet another attempt to get through my talk in 12 minutes flat. My students’ talks seem so much better than the first ones that I wrote. I’m proud of them, although this doesn’t allay their nervousness one bit. This is also a big day for me, as I’m giving my first plenary. The invitation was unexpected. I am a third year faculty member, still making all the typical fledgling mistakes – ‘wait that $5000 centrifuge rotor doesn’t actually work with our plates?!’ – and only distantly considering a keynote should my H-index ever see the backside of 50 (side note – mine is 14).

This opportunity, and many similar ones occurring right now in AOU, is part of the efforts of Scott Lanyon, the current president, to embrace and encourage early career professionals. This is the second AOU-COS meeting to devote an afternoon to lightning-5-minute-auto slide advance talks by young professionals followed by a mentoring social. Each early career person is paired with a senior scientist and given detailed feedback on presentation style and interview techniques. This occurred yesterday and the room was packed, everyone eager to learn about the budding research programs of ten ornithologists. I wished this opportunity existed when I was about to enter the job market. Knowing how to sell your ideas in a cogent, exciting package is key in this tight job market. Several of the presentations were spotless, and the research presented cutting-edge. I suddenly realized that perhaps I wasn’t so early career anymore; with this young group about to fledge, it was time to stop reminiscing and get on with my own presentation. Wish me luck!

Elizabeth Derryberry
Associate Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology

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Life on the edge: celebrating a successful long-term ecological study


Photo credit: Ken Wilson

The Scottish isles of St Kilda, off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, have an important place in my heart. It was on St Kilda where I first realised that not all sheep are boring, where I sustained my first fieldwork-related injury (a broken hip caused by an impact during a sheep-chasing incident!), where I successfully ran my first Research Council grant, and where I met my wife. It was also on St Kilda where I gained my first taste of a long-term ecological study, and where I realised what a tremendous effort is required to ensure their sustained persistence. On my first visit (lambing 1993), the St Kilda Soay sheep project was still in its infancy, having been conceived in its current form by Tim Clutton-Brock and Steve Albon in 1985. This year, the project celebrates its 30th anniversary and to mark this milestone the team organised a programme of public talks at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

I am sure that a summary of all the excellent presentations at the meeting will appear elsewhere, so here rather than repeat this, I wanted to reflect on some of the broader issues that these talks, and the project as a whole, raises about what makes a successful long-term study (with a special nod to Dave Coltman for the inspiration).

But first, is this really a long-term study and has it really been that successful?

Well, 30 years certainly feels like a long time, but the Soay sheep project is a spring chicken in comparison to some other long-term animal ecology studies – think great tits at Wytham Wood, chimpanzees at Gombe, elephants at Amboseli, Darwin’s finches on Daphne Major, aphids at Rothamsted, red deer on Rum, guillemots on Skomer, to name but a few [see Begging for funding]. However, if success if gauged in terms of research publications then the project compares favourably with the best of these – over the last three decades more than 150 papers have been published from the project, accumulating between them more than 5,000 citations (h-index = 42).

Photo: Ken Wilson

Photo: Ken Wilson

Another useful metric of success is the number of young scientists the project has trained and mentored. This is more difficult to quantify, but at a best guess the project has probably trained several dozen doctoral students and post-doctoral scientists (including two current, and one previous,  JAE senior editors!), not to mention scores of undergraduates and Masters students who have benefited from Soay sheep data and samples, and the literally hundreds of volunteers who have gained a valuable life experience. Of course, the Soay sheep project is not unique in either of these regards – indeed the production of lots of high-quality publications and young scientists is a well characterised output from most long-term studies, which is why they should be promoted and protected, as discussed previously on this blog.

So, why has the Soay sheep project been so successful?

Generous leadership: Over the years, a hallmark of the Soay sheep project has been that it has welcomed in new collaborators who bring in fresh skills and perspectives. What initially started out as an analysis of the causes and consequences of the unstable sheep population dynamics, quickly incorporated new questions about sheep genetics and the inheritance of traits, the role of parasites, vegetation dynamics, sheep behaviour, demography, quantitative genetics, genomics, immunology, ageing and physiology. It would have been easy for the project leaders to guard access to such a valuable and unique ecological resource, but by inviting new scientists to the party and encouraging ex-students and post-docs to develop their own areas for development, the Soay sheep project has continued to be at the vanguard of ecological science, with new collaborators adding value to ongoing studies rather than competing with them. That is not to say that it has always been smooth sailing (either metaphorically or literally – access to the islands requires a sea journey of at least 40 miles on often choppy seas!), or that personalities and egos have not clashed at times over the years. But under the considered and generous leadership, of first Tim Clutton-Brock and then Josephine Pemberton, the long-term future and development of the project has always taken centre stage.

Photo credit: Ken Wilson

Photo credit: Ken Wilson

The long game: Another reason for the project’s continued success is that whilst grant funding is typically short-term (usually three years), the outlook of the project has always been longer-term, with strategic planning of grant applications ensuring continual Research Council funding for the entire 30 years of the project – a quite spectacular feat! This has been made possible only by the combined efforts of lots of individuals and not just the nominal leaders of the project. Science funding is typically fickle, with research ideas coming in and out of fashion. An important bi-product of generous leadership is that there can be a pluralist approach to funding, with multiple applications for core funding being possible due to the diverse nature of the study and the questions that are currently considered ‘sexy’. Indeed, over the years the ‘core’ long-term monitoring of the Soay sheep project has been funded by grants to at least half-a-dozen different individuals.

The project has also taken a long-term approach to its understanding of the key questions being tackled. As ecologists, we are well aware that we can never fully understand ecological systems, and that all we can ever really do is to establish our best guess at the ‘truth’, which we must then update in light of new information. This is perhaps best illustrated by considering how our understanding of Soay sheep population dynamics has evolved since the project began. In 1992, just before I first visited St Kilda, Bryan Grenfell and others used the available data (6 years of high-quality census data from Village Bay) to argue that the unstable dynamics of the sheep were in fact intrinsic cycles driven by overcompensating density-dependent mortality. After I joined the project, we updated that assessment (based on 40 years of whole island census data from Hirta and neighbouring Boreray) to argue that the dynamics were not in fact cyclical but were due to pronounced threshold effects with population crashes occurring in years above some critical sheep density, the depth of which depended on winter weather (as illustrated by synchronous crashes occurring on isolated but neighbouring islands – the Moran effect). A few years later, Tim Coulson and colleagues showed that population age-structure was also important. Oh, and by the way, the long-term trend is for the sheep population size to increase and for the sheep themselves to get smaller, probably due to climate change. And to understand the mechanisms underpinning all this, we also need to consider the interaction between the sheep and their food supply: after more than 20 years of twice-yearly vegetation monitoring by Mick Crawley and students, we are only now getting close to understanding how the sheep and their food supply interact with each other and climate. The point is this: only by combining long-term data collection with a multi-disciplinary research agenda can we hope to tackle these ecosystem-scale interactions and the impact of large-scale phenomena such as global warming.

Photo Credit: Ken Wilson

Photo Credit: Ken Wilson

Continuity: Finally, another factor contributing to the success of the Soay sheep project is the continuity provided not just by its leadership and long-term collaborators, but also by its field staff and data curators. Jill Pilkington MBE has worked with the sheep project for over 20 years now, visiting the island for weeks at a time every spring, summer and autumn, come rain or shine. Ian Stevenson completed his PhD on St Kilda in 1994 and for the past 15 years has developed and managed the Soay sheep database, latterly in his role as MD of Sunadal Data Solutions . Their continued contribution to the project (and in Ian’s case to many other long-term studies) has not only allowed new methods and approaches to be developed and refined to work like clockwork, building on previous successes and rectifying previous errors, but has also provided an invaluable resource for new students and collaborators to mine. It is also worth noting here the important long-term support provided by the National Trust for Scotland, which owns the St Kilda, and Scottish Natural Heritage, which has oversight of conservation on the islands; without their continued understanding of the value of scientific research, this project could have died a long time ago.

I am not sure if the traits I have highlighted above are common to other successful long-term studies or if the Soay sheep project is unique. But either way, I think it provides a valuable example for other potential long-term studies to follow.

Ken Wilson

Senior Editor (@spodoptera007)

Three decades of Ken and Soay sheep!

Three decades of Ken and Soay sheep!

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Penguins on Parade: Conflict in South Georgia – A Slideshow

This gallery contains 16 photos.

The Sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is home to some of the world’s largest breeding aggregations of penguins. Long-term monitoring studies reveal that the local population trends are complex. Some species and colonies have rapidly declined, but others have increased … Continue reading

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VIDEO In hot and cold water: Life-history biology of the Antarctic Kiwaidae

In 2010, a UK-led expedition to the Southern Ocean revealed a community of deep-sea animals thriving around volcanic vents on the ocean floor near Antarctica. Among the many new species discovered, was the visually abundant yeti crab, Kiwa tyleri. As a result of local thermal conditions at the vents, these crabs are not restricted by the physiological limits that otherwise exclude reptant decapods from the cold stenothermal waters south of the polar front. Using a deep-sea remotely operated vehicle (ROV), research led by the University of Southampton reveals the adult life-history of this species by piecing together variation in microdistribution, body size-frequency, sex ratio, and ovarian and embryonic development, which indicates a pattern in the distribution of female Kiwaidae in relation to their reproductive development. These findings are published in the Journal of Animal Ecology (Marsh et al., 2015, In hot and cold water: differential life-history traits are key to success in contrasting thermal deep-sea environments).

(No audio)

Leigh Marsh
University of Southampton
(twitter: @Leigh_Marsh)

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Chi square I’ve met you before. A belated Valentine’s blog

For those readers who have met me, it will come as no surprise that I was a bit of a geek when I was doing my undergraduate studies.  And that was long before geek was in any way sexy.  Sheldon (from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and not @ben_sheldon_EGI) probably hadn’t been born.  However, one day one of the cool gang of undergraduates did talk to me.  She wondered whether she could use my results from a practical she had been ‘unable’ to attend.  I wanted to help but I was also concerned she’d copy my data and I’d end up being the one hauled over the coals for plagiarism.  So I came up with a cunning plan.  I wrote some code on the VAX (look it up online if you’re under 45) that took my data and generated a pseudo random dataset with many of the same statistical properties as the dataset I had collected.  It took me most of the night.  Nicole seemed happy, but not sufficiently so to come for a drink with me. Continue reading

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My life as a wealth generation asset

A few years ago, someone with an interest in dynamical systems devised a complex financial product that allowed banks and other larger corporations to achieve a good return on their investments at limited risk. But it turned out that their money was not as safe as they thought, and things went belly up. Banks lost money hand over fist, some ended up bankrupt, while the taxpayer bailed others out. The global economy took a nosedive, and countries ended up being much more in debt than they would have liked. As the next general election approaches, we are told that things are improving in the UK, but the deficit is large, and it is not coming down as quickly as expected. This is a serious problem, and something that will take time to sort out. There must have been many very difficult meetings in Whitehall, with departments told they need to spend less money and, where possible, generate money. Whether one agrees with this strategy or not, the logic behind it is straightforward to follow: we need to pay off our debts so we should spend less money and generate more of it. Continue reading

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How complex should models used by ecologists be?

In his thought-provoking blog, Tim asks a fundamental question every ecologist has to think about occasionally: how many terms should I include in my model? Tim argues that models with a high heuristic value include only a few parameters; models like Verhulst’s logistic model of population dynamics and Lotka-Volterra’s predator-prey model. Tim also advises that ecologists in the quest of universal laws should limit the number of parameters in their models to as few as necessary to get the job done. However, I shall argue that the devil is in the detail! Continue reading

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Modelers to the left of me, field biologists to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle with you

One of the things that I enjoy most about the science I do is collaborating with both field biologists who know their systems inside out, and theoreticians who’s specialist expertise is abstraction and equations. One thing I have learned from these collaborations is that every field or laboratory system exhibits some oddities. The Trinidadian guppy system is the latest, wonderful, system I have begun collaborating on, and it exhibits numerous quirks. One of my favourites is what we affectionately term ‘zombie males’. Because females store sperm, males can sire offspring after death. Such behavior is, of course, not particularly unusual, but this is the first time I have had to ponder whether it is necessary to incorporate such a life history ‘quirk’ in models, and if so, how. These system-specific oddities make me take issue with a quote from a theoretician colleague. It goes something like this: ‘reality is just a special case, and not a particularly interesting one’. Reality is, in fact, very interesting.   However, the oddities of each system do generate certain challenges for the modeler. Should they always be incorporated into models? Continue reading

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Down the up staircase: longevity and academics

Forty years. That’s at least how long an academic career can last, if you start at 30 and retire at 70. There is no mandatory retirement age (at least in the UK and US) and, unlike most people, tenured academics rarely lose their jobs. For older academics (say over 50) increased longevity can be accompanied by the right to work as long as one wants.

The usual career pattern – always sideways or up, rarely down – means that academics spend 20 years at near-maximum salary and with a tight grip on institutional power and hiring practices. This isn’t actually bad for productivity since studies convincingly show that aging doesn’t affect productivity. And the ability to work into old age is attractive to researchers whose salaries often lag the business sector. Continue reading

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Biodiversity v Intensive Farming; Has Farming Lost its Way?

Modern intensive farming produces plentiful, cheap food but is reliant on heavy use of agrochemicals and is a major driver of the ongoing collapse of wildlife populations. Taxpayers pay billions each year to support this system, with the bulk of this money going to the biggest, richest farming operations. In this blog I examine how we got to this unhappy position, question the need to further increase food production given current food waste, and suggest that we need to move towards a more sustainable, evidence-based farming system, with a source of independent advice for farmers, rather than allowing the agrochemical industry to shape the future of farming.

It is not politically correct to criticise farmers or farming. We are brought up on stories about the adventures of a playful piglet who lives on a farm with a sheepdog, half a dozen chickens and a smiling cow, all presided over by a rosy-cheeked farmer, his wife and their two children. Farmers might also be portrayed as custodians of the land, where the countryside that they look after is filled with the sound of skylarks singing, bumblebees buzzing amongst the hedgerows, and butterflies flitting across sunlit, flowery meadows.

Farming is of course the most fundamentally important of human activities; without farms and farmers, we would quickly starve. Going back to hunter-gathering is not an option. What is more, the human population is growing, and therefore we must increase food production. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared in 2010 that we must double food production by 2050, and this rationale is used to justify the drive for ever-increasing yield. One might argue that we should focus all our research on increasing yield at all cost, else our grandchildren will starve. Continue reading

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A Look Back At 2014

It’s been a busy old year at Journal of Animal Ecology, with lots of personnel changes and a few new initiatives. Here, we review some of these developments.

The blog

In terms of new initiatives, the highest profile is arguably this blog – Animal Ecology In Focus – which we started in June 2014. Although the senior editors were initially quite sceptical about whether this latest venture into social media would be successful, the feedback we have had so far suggests that it is a valued addition to our outputs, along with our Twitter feed (@AnimalEcology), our Facebook page, podcasts, videos, etc. The blog was kick-started by a controversial post by our own Tim Coulson on the latest UK badger cull trials and this theme was picked up again in a later post by the other Senior Editors, who offered the services of the Journal to Defra to provide an independent assessment of this year’s badger cull trial. The blog was subsequently highlighted by the BBC and cited in a Westminster debate by MPs from across the political divide. It is likely that this issue will continue to feature on our blog for some time to come. Other notable posts in the last six months include one by Ken Wilson highlighting the decline in entomological papers published in the Journal over the last 40 years, one by Ben Sheldon on funding long-term studies and a number of posts by Tim Coulson on issues such as sex-biases in science, the value of archiving data (with Ben), and a call for pre-proposals. In December, we opened up the blog for the first time to our Associate Editors, with a powerful post by Sonia Altizer and Julie Rushmore on the role of wildlife in the spread of Ebola virus. In 2015, we plan to invite other renowned experts in animal ecology to share their thoughts with on a range of topical issues. The first of these, by Dave Goulson, will appear shortly. If you have any ideas about what might make an interesting blog post, and who might write it, please contact us. Continue reading

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The Wildlife Side of Ebola: What Animal Ecology Can Contribute to Studying the Spread of a Deadly Virus

chimpanzee troop 6 v2

Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Photo: Julie Rushmore.

Ebola virus as a zoonotic pathogen

The current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is very much on people’s minds as a story of human suffering and death, with nearly 15,000 Ebola cases reported from West Africa as of November. Ebola virus spreads rather slowly but causes a remarkably high fatality rate, with 50% or more of human cases ending in death. The current epidemic dwarfs the cumulative number of cases in previous localized outbreaks, motivating new research into vaccines, treatments, and efforts to slow Ebola spread. Promising signs of slowing transmission have emerged in recent weeks, but many experts predict that widespread vaccination will be needed to fully halt the epidemic. The social, political and economic impacts of the current Ebola virus epidemic will likely linger for years to come. Continue reading

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It is alright to be wrong and was Wright right?

Max Planck famously said ‘science advances one funeral at a time’. Sadly there is still some truth to this: some scientists are incapable or unprepared to change their views despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they are wrong*. Outdated ideas often only die with their advocates. One thing I try to teach students is that it is alright to be wrong: many ideas turn out to be incorrect, lots of exciting hypotheses end up not being supported, and frequent promising avenues turn out to be cul-de-sacs. But that is how science progresses. We need to rule out some competing hypotheses in order to advance knowledge. Continue reading

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Archive your data!

When you submit a manuscript to the Journal of Animal Ecology you are asked the following question: ‘If your paper is accepted for publication where do you expect to archive your data or, if already archived where are the data held?’ Recently, we received a manuscript where the author had responded to this question with: ‘the data will be archived with the lead author’. This is not an appropriate digital data archive!

On about the same date that the previous was submitted, one of us wrote to the authors of a paper published just over a decade ago. In the email, data underpinning the paper were requested, as it seemed plausible that the paper’s conclusions were a consequence of an error in analysis. The authors were unable to provide the data because they had changed computers several times in the last decade and it had been lost somewhere along the line. This won’t be the only time this has happened. In fact, not so long ago, one of us has had to play the embarrassing role of replying to request a for data with the news that it was in a file format that was inaccessible on any current operating system. Fortunately, these sort of things shouldn’t happen in future for Journal of Animal Ecology papers as one of the reasons we require authors to upload data associated with their papers to a respected data repository is to avoid just such scenarios. Continue reading

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A Call for Pre-Proposals

This year I have written two UK research council proposals and a European Research Council grant. They are each on completely different topics. I suspect it has taken about six months of my time. I was pleased with each application, but I don’t have high hopes for any of them, simply because funding rates are low. I am not atypical, and this is not an atypical year for me.

What happens at the UK research councils is one receives reviewer comments on the proposal. From my experience, about half of the reviews are positive suggesting funding, and the remaining ones grumble. They rarely raise any scientific objectives that cannot very easily be dealt with. They often criticize the research team, complain that some key literature is missing and request additional methodological details. A colleague of mine once told me that he had had several grants rejected at NERC that were better than everything he had ever been asked to review, and consequently always wrote grumpy reviews. He is a little delusional. Anyway, once reviewer comments are received, a response can be written. The committee assesses all grants, reviewer comments and responses, ranks proposals and the top few get funded. Continue reading

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Begging for funding?

Understanding ecological systems takes time. While some experimental ecological work, performed under controlled lab conditions, can be conveniently fitted into the short-term periods beloved of funding bodies, much of ecology requires a longer-term perspective. Why is that? First, life-histories frequently operate at generational scales approaching decades. To have any hope to make sense of patterns of inheritance, selection or demography we need data spanning multiple generations, and that may mean multiple decades. Second, almost all ecological studies reveal heterogeneity among individuals – frequently in terms of vital rates, or detection probability, or other aspects of life-histories. Such heterogeneity makes it very hard to extrapolate from cross-sectional observations to understand the true sources of variation driving a population. Continue reading

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Transparency and Evidence-Based Policy: An Open Letter to Defra from Journal of Animal Ecology

As a scientific journal, we are in the business of independently assessing the rigour of work conducted by the research community, including the methods it uses to collect, analyse and interpret appropriate data. We are therefore well placed to judge the merits of relevant scientific endeavour and to provide constructive feedback. On October 30th 2014, the UK’s Shadow Farming Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies, called for an independent review of the methods being used to assess the outcomes of the ongoing pilot badger culls in England 1. Such a review requires a detailed understanding of the behaviour, dynamics and management of wild animal populations – disciplines that are at the heart of the field of animal ecology. As the UK’s leading animal ecology journal, we hereby offer our services to the Secretary of State to provide an independent assessment of the methods and data collected as part of this year’s badger cull. Continue reading

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